Research at the University of Michigan (U-M) focused on artificial intelligence, robotics and autonomous driving will get a major boost thanks to a $22 million commitment from the Toyota Research Institute (TRI). The announcement was made earlier this week by TRI’s CEO Gill Pratt in an address to the U-M faculty.


Under the agreement, TRI will provide an initial $22 million over four years for research collaborations with the U-M faculty, and will be directed by robotics professors Ryan Eustice and Ed Olson, who will retain their part-time faculty positions. The research will focus on enhanced driving safety, partner robotics and indoor mobility, autonomous driving and student learning and diversity, however, the university will seek proposals from faculty across departments.


“Toyota has long enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the University of Michigan, and we are excited to expand our collective efforts to address complex mobility challenges through artificial intelligence,” Pratt said. “We look forward to collaborating with U-M’s research faculty and students to develop new intelligent technologies that will help drivers travel more safely, securely and efficiently. We will also focus on expanding the benefit of mobility technology to in-home support of older persons and those with special needs.”


This is the latest step in the emerging private-public effort to establish southeast Michigan and Ann Arbor as a major hub for development of new modes of mobility and in-home robotics. Last April, TRI announced the establishment of its Ann Arbor research facility (TRI-ANN) and the hiring of U-M robotics professors Eustice and Olson to support autonomous vehicle research. TRI-ANN is the third TRI facility, joining TRI offices in Palo Alto near Stanford and in Cambridge, near MIT.


Toyota, along with General Motors, Ford, Nissan and Honda, is also a founding partner of U-M’s Mobility Transformation Center (MTC), an interdisciplinary public-private research and development initiative that is developing, as Toyota says, “the foundation for a commercially viable ecosystem of connected and automated vehicles.” MTC also oversees Mcity. The “mini-city” sits on a 32-acre site on U-M’s North Campus which allows researchers to test emerging vehicle technologies—such as autonomous vehicles—rapidly and rigorously in a safe, controlled environment.


“Our labs at U-M push the envelope of what robots can sense and understand about the world, and TRI provides an opportunity to apply these discoveries into real-world products,” says Professor Eustice. “The challenges that TRI faces with autonomous cars will leverage our labs’ research into complex behaviors, like merging and understanding the intention of other vehicles from their actions.”


News of the commitment to U-M isn’t really surprising given that Toyota executives have explained that the company believes artificial intelligence has significant potential to support future industrial technologies and even create entirely new industries. TRI’s CEO Pratt has previously said that the organization’s goals are to improve safety by continuously decreasing the likelihood that a car will be involved in an accident; make driving accessible to everyone, regardless of ability; and apply Toyota technology used for outdoor mobility to indoor environments, particularly so robots can help care for the elderly.


It will be interesting to watch developments at the University of Michigan and at TRI. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on autonomous vehicles and the potential use of partner robots to care for the elderly or people with special needs?